In Davos this year there was much talk of Islam and its differences with the West. The emphasis was on trying to understand why rather than on dismissing the whole issue as that clash of civilisations Samuel Huntington wrote so prophetically about nearly ten years before 9/11. A whole gamut of Muslim intellectuals were invited to address sessions with subjects as diverse as religion and globalisation, modernity and Islam and the shared roots of Western and Islamic culture. Arab princes spoke, as did professors and scholars from the Islamic world and women in hijab who argued that the West try and understand that democracy and gender issues had different meanings in different cultures. The Grand Mufti of Bosnia was there alongside the former American Archbishop of Canterbury and representing the Indian subcontinent was, ironically, General Pervez Musharraf.
As I watched him expound on his theory that Islam was a peaceful religion that sought only friendship and peace with the world, I found myself wondering why then it had been necessary to break India up for reasons of Islam. But, that is the sort of politically incorrect question nobody asks these days just as we do not ask why the Kashmir Valley’s struggle for autonomy has ended up becoming part of the international jehad against Americans, Jews and Hindus. Political correctness was very much the mood of the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting so many of those who spoke for Islam got away with blaming the West for their woes.
You must understand, they said, that terrorism was not Islamic or Christian but just terrorism. And, you must understand that at the root of what was going on lay unresolved political problems like Palestine and Kashmir. Our friendly, neighbourhood military dictator went so far as to say that because of these unresolved political issues young Muslims had developed a sense of persecution and had begun to believe that the world was against Islam. It was the duty of the West to not just help resolve these political issues fairly but also help solve some of the socio-economic problems of the Islamic world. Then, the world would be at peace once more and we could live without the threat of suicide bombers.
Since this column has never had pretensions of political correctness let me spit it out. It would, in my view, be a terrible mistake to try and understand the causes of Islamic terrorism. And, please let us call it Islamic since nearly every terrorist act in recent years has been committed by Muslims in the name of their so-called jehad. These terrible acts of violence cannot be excused on political grounds. There have always been political disputes and there always will be but the solution is not terrorism. As for ”socio-economic” causes we need to remember that none of the hijackers of 9/11 were poor, illiterate or underprivileged. Many of them have abandoned their repressive home countries for comfortable, middle-class lives in Europe and the United States but were so consumed by hatred of the West that they were prepared to die for it.
Moderate Muslims need to ask why just as they need to ask why, despite all their oil, even rich Muslim countries are unable to create just and enlightened societies instead of ones that produce disaffected, desperate youths who are prepared to give their lives to kill innocent people. If the West is such a terrible place and America Satan incarnate then why do so many Muslims choose to migrate to cities like New York and London? Why are they not happy to live bigoted, blinkered lives in Riyadh and Jeddah?
There would be no problem with Islam, no ”clash” of any kind, if it would restrict its jehad to its own boundaries. It is precisely because it has chosen to internationalise its ideological and religious battle that there is trouble. Just as young Muslims think their way of life is worth fighting and dying for, so young people who are not Muslim feel their way of life is worth fighting for. And, whether Muslims are prepared to admit it or not modernity does mean questioning ancient religious beliefs and demanding answers. A religion that is based on the belief that the last word or ideology, faith, social mores and law was written fourteen hundred years ago will always find itself in conflict with change. Modernity is in its essence the ability to accept change.
This is the jehad that needs to be fought but it needs to be fought within Islam so that moderate, rational voices can rise above the violence and hatred of the bigots who seem to be the only ones able to speak for Islam.
In Davos we were supposed to have heard the voices of moderate Islam but what we ended up hearing, at session after session, was an endless litany of complaints. It was the fault of the West that Islam was being labelled a terrorist religion, the fault of the West that most Muslim rulers were despots, the fault of the West that political issues had been allowed to fester, the fault of the West that Muslim countries had not progressed economically and the fault of the West that Osama bin Laden had got created. In vain I searched to hear one voice that would admit that there must be something deeply wrong in Islamic societies that they had bred the sort of hatred that created so much senseless violence. Just an explanation, for instance, for why the Buddhas of Bamiyan were smashed to bits without one Islamic country intervening. I did not hear it.